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Blueprint for Rebuilding

The cleanup has begun, but the question over how to rebuild the damaged schools still remains

Anyone who turned on a TV during the first weeks of September saw the gripping images of the aftermath that hurricanes Katrina and Rita wreaked across the Gulf Coast areas of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The loss of human life and devastation of property in the hurricane-ravaged area--roughly the size of Great Britain--is unfathomable. Entire communities vanished overnight, swept away by flood waters and storm surges. In many communities, nothing stands but building foundations. Even the rubble was washed away in the murky waters.

The storms took their toll on school buildings as well. Many schools were still left standing after the hurricanes, although they are no longer functional after having eight feet of water inside, their classrooms filled with mud and toxic debris. Others have a mold problem; after being soaked through by rain and flood waters, the mold has begun to grow within the walls, rendering these buildings unhealthy and unusable.

Two tasks exist now for educators in these areas, to assess the storm damage and decide exactly how to rebuild their schools.

Assessing Damage

Reports of school damage in the areas affected by the hurricanes vary widely. New Orleans, for instance, had 126 schools in place before the storms and all are still standing now--except none are usable and open. The city suffered the most damage from flooding caused by failing levies. Schools, while still basically structurally sound, were soaked through. Some still had six feet of mud and debris in the classrooms in November.

There was very little damage to the schools in Alabama. Perry Taylor, school architect for the Alabama Department of Education, says Mobile County School District was the hardest hit, but it still had only two schools that probably need to be replaced.

New Orleans' 126 schools are still standing, but none are open or useable.

"Students are occupying one school that had water damage but over time, we feel strongly that it will present problems and need to be replaced," Taylor says. "The damage to the other schools should be repaired within the next 12 months." Alabama currently hosts about 6,000 students displaced from Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

Mississippi, on the other hand, had widespread devastation from a direct Katrina hit. "There's a 40-mile stretch along the Mississippi Gulf Coast where as far as a mile inland, there's nothing still standing," says Joey Crain, principal of the Biloxi, Miss.-based architectural firm Guild Hardy. The schools left standing aren't in such great shape, either. "I've done some school assessments where we found furniture on the roof," he adds.

The Guild Hardy firm designed two new K-12 schools that opened in Mississippi last year and were demolished by an eight-foot storm surge. Crain says both schools will have to be gutted down to the substrate and rebuilt as originally designed. He adds that he hopes to come back with something more modern to replace other schools that were demolished or sustained heavy damage.

Silver Lining?

If there is a silver lining in the dark cloud of the hurricane aftermath, it may be the affected communities have a chance to radically alter the buildings schools occupy, using all the current knowledge of how children learn and how buildings can be laid out to facilitate learning.

"We have a clean slate and a chance to really build something back all at once and do it right," Crain says.

In Biloxi, Miss., schools were in pretty good shape before the hurricane--and will probably be built back to the same standards as before, Crain reports. Mississippi's typical school district had five or six computers in each classroom. All of the schools Crain's firm has been involved with had Internet connections in every classroom, as well as satellite TV. Many had distance-learning facilities as well. The high school in Biloxi had video capability, "so the students watched video broadcasts instead of listening to audio announcements," he adds.

"We have a clean slate and a chance to really build something back all at once and do it right." -Joey Crain, principal, Mississippi architectural fi rm Guild Hardy

A number of school districts have embraced the pod concept rather than the traditional double-loaded corridor model, Crain explains. "We have pods with classrooms off of them, allowing grades to go to the common areas at times to receive instruction as a grade level, but there are also individual classrooms," he says.

However, a few years' time is required to properly plan and build a school--and time is something these communities don't have. "In many cases, the pressure will be on to get classrooms in to house the kids," notes Paul Houston, executive director, American Association of School Administrators. "To create 21st century schools of learning requires pre-planning and a couple of years of lead time. And money's going to become a pressure in terms of what these communities can afford to do. But my best guess is this will be a wonderful opportunity to build better schools, in some cases, much better than the schools the children attended before."

Then there's the question of how many students are coming back to their former homes. According to Steven Bingler, a principal at Concordia LLC, a New Orleans-based research, planning and architectural design firm, no one is clear about how many students will come back and how many schools will be needed to accommodate the returning population. "It's my understanding that there may be 1,200 to 1,500 students already in the process of returning to New Orleans and the city is busy trying to get six buildings up and running," Bingler says.

Bingler explains that before the storm, the district was talking about new schools as centers of community. "I had met with the mayor and members of the school board about moving forward with a master plan to integrate city services and school district needs all together and develop community learning centers," Bingler says. "It's my assumption that things will continue to develop in that direction. I think it's more imperative than ever to think about building resources for people to come home to."

A Chicken-and-Egg Question

But there's currently a debate about what to build first, says Scot Bini, vice president of education markets for URS. "Do we put businesses back in so that people have a place to work, or do we put houses up, because people won't come if they don't have a job or schools."

It's also a big question about how many schools need to be built and how large the new schools will have to be. "Until we know the number of kids coming back, we can't tell you if we only need 30 schools out of the 126 original buildings," says Martin McFarland, managing director of Alvarez & Marsel, a private management company retained by the Louisiana Education Department in June 2005 to oversee the finances and operations of the New Orleans schools, which were failing and in financial distress. "If that's the case, 90 of the schools are obsolete. So it has nothing to do with if the schools are destroyed. It's that we won't need them anymore if there aren't enough students."

"This will be a wonderful opportunity to build much better than the schools the children attended before." -Paul Houston, executive director, AASA

What will draw people back to the hurricane-ravaged areas are businesses, schools, homes and healthcare facilities. But John McIlwain, senior resident fellow, Urban Land Institute, says schools are a big draw for families. "When people come back, they want to know their kids will be educated and they want to know there's healthcare," McIlwain says. "You really have to build all of these things together as much as you can, though."

Many different building- and education-related organizations are coming to the aid of the Gulf states in the best way they know how--by advising the leaders of the states and communities that need their help. Urban Land Institute, for instance, gathered an advisory panel of experts in the middle of November to come up with a proposed plan for the rebuilding of New Orleans. The plan--a sort of blueprint for recovery--will be presented to the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, a group led by Mayor Ray Nagin charged with coming up with a plan to rebuild the city by the end of the year.

How Much, and Who Pays?

There's no question many schools in the Gulf states will need to be rebuilt. But there are questions about how much the work will cost and who, ultimately, will end up footing the bill.

Although Biloxi once had a solid tax base, it no longer has the same population to fund its efforts. "If mileage and tax base is derived from property taxes and in some cases, you've lost half of the homes, how do you build back?" Crain asks. "Our assumption is that it will come back, but it will take time and money."

The bulk of the money for rebuilding efforts will come from FEMA, and it's ultimately FEMA that will determine the dollar value of damage to the schools and whether they're repairable or if they need to be rebuilt. Houston says his association originally estimated the cost of rebuilding the hurricane-stricken area schools at $10 billion.

In addition to FEMA money, other efforts are underway to help bring funding to support construction and repair of the area's schools. Louisiana senators Mary Landrieu and David Vitter are co-authoring legislation for bringing funding to rebuild Louisiana, and some of the funding is earmarked for public school construction.

After viewing and assessing the damage caused by Katrina, U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy introduced a bipartisan Katrina Recovery bill to bring relief to students, educators and schools in the area, and proposed the Gulf Coast Regional Redevelopment Authority, which would focus all its energies on rebuilding the Gulf. The Help Committee Katrina Education Bill would provide $100 million to schools that take in students displaced from the hurricane region for supplemental services and $900 million for recovering data, replacing instructional materials and equipment, establishing temporary facilities and any other activities necessary to open schools. The bill does not cover funding for construction or renovation of schools, however.

"Local folks hope that funding will trickle down to the local level and they can manage the construction and repair efforts themselves," URS' Bini notes.

Each community will make its own decisions on how it wants to rebuild itself, says Ron Bogle, president and CEO of the American Architectural Foundation. "It would compound the tragedy ... if people simply decided to rebuild the schools at the same sites in the same way as before," Bogle says. "We believe these communities want ... the school to be an expression of the spirit of that community. However, we want to encourage the leaders, citizens and students to think about their schools in a different way, not as a neighborhood school but as a multi-use facility that serves the whole community. And if you think of a school in those terms, than you have to design it differently."

Many will argue the need to get buildings up quickly and put a big box school in the fringe of the community, Bogle adds. "What we hope will happen is as much about a process as it is about what it looks like," Bogle says. "That is, that the teachers and principals and parents and students ought to have a chance to decide what they'd like to have in their school. We want to foster a lot of dialogue and in the communities where a lot of the people are gone, that's going to be a challenge." DA

Peggy Bresnick Kendler is a contributing editor who frequently covers the construction industry.